Maasai Mara, area where the main Maasai tribes live.
We never learn. Whenever we use Lonelyplanet to make a decision about our trip we regret it. We’re in Kenya, on our last safari, and we’ve entrusted the safeguarding of our asses to Safe & Ride, one of the recommended companies by the most famous and most sold tourist guides in the world. All things considered, we were lucky because at least this is a real company. The rest of the ones mentioned by Lonelyplanet ended up being nothing more than intermediaries between operators and tourists with the aim of raising prices and making sure the jeeps are packed.
We don’t mind that our van is a 1970’s vehicle, or that the dust enters through every little gap, or that Richards, the driver, ignores us every time we ask him to stop to be able to get a better look at such and such animal, or that he asks us to lend him 80 bucks in the middle of the savanna. All that’s nothing. The worst is when the motor stops working, which happens quite often, and we try to start it. We have to get out of the car and push, since the battery doesn’t work. That wouldn’t be a serious problem if we weren’t leaving the roads constantly to drive among lions chasing after their cubs. That’s Kenya’s style. You don’t pay attention to the signs. When Kenyans see a “cat” they just drive straight to it. If we don’t drive over the tail of a lioness, it’s because the beasts’ god doesn’t want us to, and if the car didn’t stall next to a pair of cheetahs, it was because the humans’ god didn’t want to punish us, even if we deserved it.
But at least when we push the van we’re not alone. We’re travelling with a very nice and very different Swedish couple. Nobody would pay attention to Christine until she smiled and her face lit up like a little girl. Andrew, though just twenty years old, looks older. After a fleeting career as a professional poker player, living in five-star hotels and travelling around the world, this tournament bully , bored with winning or tired of the stress –he’s not sure which– opted for early retirement. For his retirement, and where his sister has come to visit him, he chose to go into hiding with one of the most peculiar tribes in Africa, the Maasai. In the morning he teaches English and math in a school. In the afternoon, he patrols the area surrounding Kilimanjaro to frighten off poachers still prowling there. Ivory commerce is so persecuted it isn’t profitable any more, while leopards’ skins are no longer in style. So the business now is in game meat, which is sold cut in steaks like it came from cattle.
The truth is here people’s wealth is measured by the amount of meat roaming in their garden. You are as rich as the number of cows grazing on your property. It isn’t a matter of status but supply and demand, in this case of women. The price of a wife is seven cows, and since you’re allowed to have as many as you want (wives), you have to be quick. There is only one requirement for being able to accumulate wives: you have to be at least thirty years old. Among the Maasai, your professional career is clearer than in a political party. When you’re five, you start working as a shepherd until you’re considered a man, sometime between twelve and twenty years of age. Then everyone belonging to the same generation is made warriors in a big ceremony. They don’t remain warriors for long, though, because when they’re thirty they retire and join the elders, whose only job is to assigning themselves pompous titles taken from Westerners. In other words, while men play soldier, women are responsible for their families.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, Andrew has become very attached to them, so much so that underneath a dozen blankets and Maasai necklaces his body starts to look very much like theirs. Tall and skinny, with scrawny legs and gaps between his teeth… To make the mimesis complete, he only needs to distend his earlobes –some Maasai even bend them- or brand his cheeks with an incandescent iron, something they still do to their children to be able to distinguish them if people from another village steal them. For Andrew to be able to have his own walking cane, a simple stick men always carry with them, and which they use to relentlessly poke the cattle, he still needs to earn his stripes.
The Maasai are a nomad tribe that arrived to Kenya and Tanzania just 200 years ago looking for the green pastures of the great plains, just like antelopes or buffaloes in one of their famous migrations. There they discovered Ngorongoro, the biggest crater in the world and a natural fence for the thousands of animals that live in an eternal paradise, perhaps the most beautiful landscape we’ve seen in Africa. A mist always surrounds it, what looks more like a brushstroke about to be painted by a magical hand than just a simple cloud. The same happens in Kilimanjaro, the majestic mountain that rises 6000 meters above the desert and ends in a crown of perennial snow. A mirage on the equator whose ceaseless thaw maintains an ecosystem around it, where, like in Ngorongoro, the animals are trapped with no escape possible, though this time it’s not due to towering walls but the desert’s heat.
In the middle of this landscape, the Maasai look like travelers from the past, ghosts from the savanna that suddenly appear out nowhere and disappear again behind the mist, with their fast gait or slow run, floating rather than touching the ground, as if they didn’t want to wake up the beasts that surround them outside or the ones that chase them inside. Like the ones loose in our friend Andrew’s head.Google+